My education about politics in Darjeeling began the moment I learned the location of my fellowship placement. The day I landed at Bagdogra airport marked the end of a forty day strike, and there were fears that we wouldn't be able to get in to Darjeeling as a result. This strike was in response to the creation of Telangana, a new state in India, over the summer of 2013. The Nepali Gorkha population of Darjeeling has been working towards independent statehood since they were made a part of West Bengal at Indian independence. Most of the other states in India were created along linguistic lines, so the Gorkhas stated that since Darjeeling speaks Nepali and not Bengali, they should be their own state. Even before independence, this area was governed by Nepal, Bhutan, and the British Empire. The local population sought its own independent nation to cease their transfer from country to country. They have not been successful, but when Telangana was created, they saw an opportunity to achieve their goals. Thus far, they have not triumphed, but time will tell.
Since I started working in Darjeeling, the political situation has affected my work in many ways. The strike made it impossible for any of the NGOs in town, including Broadleaf, to work for a full forty days, and I spent lots of time playing catch-up with the rest of the Broadleaf staff. Strikes in Darjeeling are unlike those in other parts of India. Here, when people strike, the entire town shuts down, and the roads to the bottom of the mountains are closed. All the schools close, the offices close, and everyone stays at home. Therefore, nothing could be accomplished in the office during the strike. There have been other examples of the political situation affecting my work as well, mostly in the shape of government schemes that were supposed be in place in the areas of health and education that are not functioning in this part of India.
The other fellow at my placement had experience working with the Ministry of Health in Assam before joining the fellowship. In the first couple of months, he was constantly mentioning government programs that should be providing many of the services that Broadleaf's programs provided. These programs should have been national, working in all states, but they did not exist in Darjeeling. There were several reasons for this. One is that the government had not initiated these programs in this relatively isolated part of the country. Another is the lack of staff to manage the programs. It is difficult for the government of West Bengal to find people willing to work in Darjeeling, and in some cases the state cited safety issues as reasons not to send additional staff to the area. A third reason is lack of funding, which plagues many government schemes throughout in India. All of these reasons have a political explanation, and the lack of policy implementation made it necessary for Broadleaf to tackle issues the government should be addressing.
Another issue preventing implementation of government medical and educational programs is that government officials, doctors, and education officials are ethnic Bengalis, sent here by the state government. Most of them don't speak Nepali, which is the only language our students speak. When we bring students to visit health clinics, the Broadleaf staff has to translate. This can make doctor's appointments long and difficult at best, and awkward and ineffective at worst.
During election season, I lived with a constant fear in the back of my mind of riots or further strikes, which could have caused us to shut down our important work yet again. Until the results were announced and passed without any issues, I did not have peace and constantly feared for my ability to work and achieve the goals I set for my fellowship.
When the political situation in a local area gets in the way of development projects achieving anything, this is an extreme development failure. When children are denied programs they should by citizenship be guaranteed, simply because they live somewhere politically and geographically isolated, this is a development failure. Access to health care, education, or freedom should not be an accident of birth. My students did not choose to be born in Darjeeling. They should not be punished for the political struggles and disagreements of their fathers and grandfathers and distant ancestors. However, this is the reality on the ground. It has been happening for years, it is happening, and unless things change, it will continue to happen for years to come. As an outsider and a temporary resident, I have been frustrated by the fact that I am powerless to do anything to change this situation. The only thing that I can do is inform others about what is happening here and hope that will create a change in a place that has come to feel like a second home.